While most Americans spent the week fearing a rogue satellite falling out of the sky, perhaps they should have spent a little more time considering the $6 billion the U.S. government spent on satellites that have yet to get off the ground.
After 17 years, more than $6 billion in taxpayer money and three complete project overhauls, a program that was originally intended to launch six weather-tracking satellites before 2018 has yet to put the first test satellite into orbit.
“This is the poster child of a runaway government program that is over-promised, over-budget and, honestly, under-performed,” Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Andy Harris, R- Md., said Friday at a House hearing on the program.
The Joint Polar Satellite System run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will now create two satellites, one that’s set to launch Oct. 25 and another that won’t hit the skies until 2017. By that time the total price tag is expected to balloon to more than $17 billion.
David A. Powner, the director of Information Technology Management Issues at the Government Accountability Office, said at least some of the blame should fall on Congress, which has failed to pass a year-long budget bill since 1997. Because Congress has appropriated funds in short spurts through continuing resolutions, the project has not been able to work off of a steady baseline of funding, he said.
“One of most difficult things for a project manager is uncertainty,” Powner said. “The more re-plannings we have to do, the more uncertainty there is, the more difficult it is for us to accomplish our goals.”
There is currently one government-controlled weather satellite in orbit, launched under a previous initiative, but it is expected wear out and become non-functional by 2016. This rare breed of satellite orbits pole-to-pole rather than around the equator and feeds back detailed weather information that is then used to make predictions about hurricanes, tornadoes and other possible natural disasters more than four days before they hit.
“The idea of not fully funding this satellite program is unacceptable. It is remarkably short-sighted,” said Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C. “In failing to support the program we are putting lives and critical infrastructure in danger.”
The satellite that launches in October will take 18 to 24 months once in orbit to become fully functional. That means there will be a six- to eight-month gap between the time the currently orbiting satellite dies and the test satellite goes online, during which “we will see a decline in the accuracy of forecasting beyond a two- to four-day window,” Miller said.
And despite the 17 years it has taken to create the new test satellite, some NASA scientists working on the project said it will only be functional for three years, after which time a new, long-term version will be sent up.
Powner said the test satellite was intended to be a temporary unit used to try out the new technologies, so it was not built to last. Even so, he noted that “there have been questions about workmanship issues.”
“So we are going to launch what amounts to a faulty satellite?” Harris rhetorically asked the witness panel. “This is just mindboggling to me. I don’t get it.”
The weather satellite project was originally created in 1994 as a joint venture between the Department of Defense, which needed to track weather patterns in remote locations to plan military missions, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which needed accurate and timely data in order to track life-threatening storms and plan evacuations.
The partnership was intended to cost $6.5 billion over 24 years, reduce duplication, and save the federal government $1.3 billion. Instead two satellites were cut in 2005 because of “skyrocketing costs,” and by 2009 the cost estimate for the four remaining satellites was pushing $15 billion, according to the Space, Science and Technology Committee hearing charter.
Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee chairman Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., pointed out that there was not one person, one party or one president to blame for the program’s “lax oversight and bad leadership,” because the issues spanned eight sessions of Congress and three presidential administrations.
“This program’s problems are problems for all seasons,” Broun said. “There is plenty of blame to go around.”